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How this AP photographer captured a unique splash at the swimming worlds with an underwater camera
The perfect AI stock under $10 (Ad)
Delays in promised Western military aid to Ukraine are costing lives, the defense minister says
MILAN FASHION PHOTOS: Feben, Rave Review promote looks for women of all shapes, ages and sizes
66,000% upside on tiny biotech? (Ad)
Caribbean leaders meet with Haiti's prime minister. Foreign force deployment is on the agenda
What recession? Professional forecasters raise expectations for US economy in 2024
Sneaky CEO Hides Monster AI Stock Under Secret Trade Name (Ad)
Stock market today: Asian shares mostly decline, while Tokyo again touches a record high
AT&T will give $5 to customers hit by cellphone network outage
S&P 500   5,088.80
DOW   39,131.53
QQQ   436.78
How this AP photographer captured a unique splash at the swimming worlds with an underwater camera
The perfect AI stock under $10 (Ad)
Delays in promised Western military aid to Ukraine are costing lives, the defense minister says
MILAN FASHION PHOTOS: Feben, Rave Review promote looks for women of all shapes, ages and sizes
66,000% upside on tiny biotech? (Ad)
Caribbean leaders meet with Haiti's prime minister. Foreign force deployment is on the agenda
What recession? Professional forecasters raise expectations for US economy in 2024
Sneaky CEO Hides Monster AI Stock Under Secret Trade Name (Ad)
Stock market today: Asian shares mostly decline, while Tokyo again touches a record high
AT&T will give $5 to customers hit by cellphone network outage
S&P 500   5,088.80
DOW   39,131.53
QQQ   436.78
How this AP photographer captured a unique splash at the swimming worlds with an underwater camera
The perfect AI stock under $10 (Ad)
Delays in promised Western military aid to Ukraine are costing lives, the defense minister says
MILAN FASHION PHOTOS: Feben, Rave Review promote looks for women of all shapes, ages and sizes
66,000% upside on tiny biotech? (Ad)
Caribbean leaders meet with Haiti's prime minister. Foreign force deployment is on the agenda
What recession? Professional forecasters raise expectations for US economy in 2024
Sneaky CEO Hides Monster AI Stock Under Secret Trade Name (Ad)
Stock market today: Asian shares mostly decline, while Tokyo again touches a record high
AT&T will give $5 to customers hit by cellphone network outage

Altria Group Q4 2023 Earnings Call Transcript


Listen to Conference Call View Latest SEC 10-K Filing

Participants

Corporate Executives

  • Mac Livingston
    Vice President, Investor Relations
  • Billy Gifford
    Chief Executive Officer
  • Sal Mancuso
    Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer

Analysts

Presentation

Operator

Good day, everyone, and welcome to the Altria Group 2023 Fourth Quarter and Full Year Earnings Conference Call. Today's call is scheduled to last about one-hour, including remarks by Altria's management and a question-and-answer session. [Operator Instructions] Representatives of the investment community and media on the call will be able to ask questions following the conclusion of the prepared remarks.

I would now like to turn the call over to Mac Livingston, Vice President of Investor Relations for Altria Client Services. Please go ahead, sir.

Mac Livingston
Vice President, Investor Relations at Altria Group

Thanks, Jamie. Good morning, and thank you for joining us. This morning, Billy Gifford, Altria's CEO; and Sal Mancuso, our CFO, will discuss Altria's fourth quarter and full year business results. Earlier today, we issued a press release providing our results. The release, presentation [Technical Issues] quarterly metrics and our latest corporate responsibility reports are all available at altria.com. During our call today, unless otherwise stated, we're comparing results to the same period in 2022.

Our remarks contain forward-looking and cautionary statements and projections of future results. Please review the forward-looking and cautionary statements section at the end of today's earnings release for various factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from projections. Future dividend payments and share repurchases remain subject to the discretion of Altria's Board.

Altria reports its financial results in accordance with U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Today's call will contain various operating results on both a reported and adjusted basis. Adjusted results exclude special items that affect comparisons with reported results. Descriptions of these non-GAAP financial measures and reconciliations are included in today's earnings release and on our website at altria.com. Finally, all references in today's remarks to tobacco consumers or consumers within a specific tobacco category or segment refer to existing adult tobacco consumers 21 years of age or older.

With that, I will turn the call over to Billy.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Thanks, Mac. Good morning, and thank you for joining us. It was a pivotal year for Altria as we made significant progress in pursuit of our vision by enhancing our smoke-free product portfolio while our businesses performed well in a challenging environment. We grew adjusted diluted earnings per share by 2.3% and continued our long history of rewarding shareholders by delivering nearly $7.8 billion in dividends and share repurchases.

Throughout 2023, we took several transformative steps that we believe position us for sustained success in the U.S.. nicotine space, including completing our acquisition of NJOY and fully integrating it into our family of companies, making exciting progress on our promising smoke-free pipeline, including launching on! PLUS internationally in Sweden, one of the world's largest modern oral tobacco markets. Continuing preparations to bring heated tobacco products to market, this includes heated tobacco stick products through Horizon, our joint venture with JT and our heated tobacco capsule product SWIC and advocating for a responsible and well-regulated e-vapor market, including stepped up enforcement against the listed disposable products.

Our vision continues to guide our actions and we believe that our growing portfolio of smoke-free products positions us well to lead in the evolving nicotine space. My remarks this morning will focus on our view of the U.S. nicotine space and our progress in each of the smoke-free categories. I'll then hand it over to Sal who will provide an update on consumer and industry dynamics and further detail on our business and financial results.

Let's begin with the operating environment. We estimate the total industry equivalized nicotine volumes increased approximately 3% for the year and approximately 1% over the past five years on a compounded annual basis driven by the growth of illicit flavored disposable e-vapor products. This new estimate marched a change from our previously provided estimates of low single-digit decline in total nicotine over the past several years. Our new estimate reflects a deeper ongoing analysis of the impact of a listed products on the e-vapor category. We have previously acknowledged the challenges associated with reading illicit market activity that takes place in less traditional channels and we believe we have deepened our understanding of market dynamics through improved data sources, information gap still remain.

As a result, we're making some informed assumptions to better reflect the dynamics at play. For example, we account for differences in liquid buying across products, device attributes and usage patterns by equivalizing e-vapor volume across different form factors. We then equivalize e-vapor volume back to cigarettes, our base unit of equivalized volume. Because of the volatility that exists in reading the illicit market, our estimates may change over time and we plan to provide you with our latest and best thinking as it evolves. Of note, our estimate focuses only on usage among age 21 plus consumers.

Looking now by category. Industry cigarette volumes declined by an estimated 8% last year primarily due to the historical secular rate of decline, the growth of the eliciting vapor products and continued macroeconomic pressures on smokers. And while we're deeply concerned about growth in the listed product use, we are encouraged that adult smokers continue to transition to smoke-free alternatives, which now represent approximately 40% of total nicotine space. E-vapor continues to be the largest smoke-free category and we have observed an increase in the number of adult vapers driven primarily by those choosing illicit products.

Based on our new estimate, the e-vapor category grew approximately 35% in 2023. We believe the category growth was largely driven by a listed flavored disposable products, which we estimate represents over 50% of the category. We estimate the pod based products declined approximately 50% and represent between 15% to 20% of the category. We continue to believe the e-vapor category is in the beginning of a reset and the steps that we've taken since closing the NJOY transaction will allow us to responsibly participate in the category's growth.

Let's briefly recap our 2023 actions with NJOY following the completion of our acquisition on June 1. First, we strengthened NJOY's supply chain to enable our expansion plans. Our teams work diligently to solidify the entire supply chain from sourcing direct materials through shipments to retail. We now expect to have capacity to support our expansion plans for NJOY moving forward. Next, we prioritize closing inventory gaps at retail and expanding distribution abates. For example, prior to closing, a number of stores had ACE pods in distributions, but no devices while other stores were missing various pod varieties.

Our teams have closed inventory gaps in stores that already had distribution, which has significantly improved in-stock conditions at retail. During the fourth quarter, we expanded distribution of ACE to over 75,000 stores surpassing our previously announced goal of 70,000 stores. These stores represent approximately 75% of e-vapor volume and 55% of cigarette volume sold in the U.S. multi-outlet and convenience channel. We also introduced NJOY's first retail trade program, which we believe will help NJOY achieve optimal visibility and product fixture space at retail. Retailers can sign up for the program at various levels with merchandising options designed to position NJOY strategically and responsibly to tobacco consumers while creating further awareness of the brand.

We are encouraged by our trade partners' response to the program with approximately 70% of stores having chosen options that secure premium positioning in the e-vapor fixture for NJOY. Fixture resets are well underway and we expect the majority will be completed in the first half of this year. We believe that achieving manufacturing capacity, supply chain security and optimal product distribution and placement at retail were necessary precursors to engaging consumers with impactful marketing and promotional offers.

Turning to NJOY's business results. NJOY consumables shipment volume was approximately 11 million units for the quarter and 23 million units since closing. NJOY's retail share in the multi-outlet and convenience channel was 3.7% in the fourth quarter. In November, we began testing trial generating bundle offers in a limited number of retail accounts and the results were very encouraging. Despite the limited reach of these offers, NJOY retail share increased three-tenths of a percentage point nationally in November and another three-tenths in December.

While still early, we are excited by NJOY's momentum and remain optimistic about its potential in the U.S. market. We expect to further expand NJOY promotions and marketing activation in the first quarter and we anticipate submitting a PMTA for NJOY's a age restricted [Indecipherable] with non-tobacco flavors in the first half of this year. We look forward to sharing more detail about our plans for the year at CAGNY.

Looking more broadly at the e-vapor category, we continue to believe that the current state of the market is intolerable for both legitimate manufacturers and consumers. As I previously stated, the total nicotine space grew in 2023 largely because of e-legal flavored disposable e-vapor products. These products are being distributed by companies violating virtually every rule and guidance the FDA has issued since 2016. We are actively engaging with regulators, state and federal lawmakers, freight partners and other stakeholders to build awareness of the serious issue and drive marketplace enforcement.

While we believe there is still significant work ahead to eliminate these illicit products from the market, we have seen some encouraging actions. In December, the FDA in collaboration with U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced the seizure of approximately 1.4 million unauthorized e-vapor products, including Health Bar and other brands that are popular with under age users. We believe that adopting comprehensive border protection programs is an important step to securing the market of illicit products. Additionally, we have worked with legislators in a number of states that have passed or are considering legislation requiring manufacturers to certify that they have either submitted a PMTA which is pending or received a marketing order in compliance with FDA regulations.

We also initiated litigation in the United States District Court in California relating to the sale of unlawful products. And although this litigation isn't facing some initial procedural challenges, we remain committed to explore and pursue all litigation opportunities against manufacturers, distributors and online retailers related to sale of unlawful products. A strong course correction is needed to protect the tobacco harm reduction for the millions of adult smokers in the U.S. We've learned from past experiences that complex issues like this require the work of many stakeholders. For our part, we are working with regulators, legislatures, law enforcement and others to address the illicit market and while the FDA and other authorities are stepping up enforcement, more action is needed.

Turning to oral tobacco. The nicotine pouch category experienced sizable growth once again resulting in an estimated 7.5% increase in total U.S. oral tobacco volumes over the past six months. In the fourth quarter, oral nicotine pouches grew 11.8 share points year-over-year and now represent more than 35% of the total U.S. for oral tobacco category. on continued to participate in the category growth. As-reported, shipment volumes increased nearly 33% in the fourth quarter and 39% for the full year. In the fourth quarter, Helix continued its focus on volume growth while improving profitability. Helix applied its analytics and revenue growth management capabilities to be more flexible and efficient with its promotional investments in the marketplace.

As a result, on's retail price increased over 47% versus the year ago period while growing its retail share by 1.1 percentage points. Encouragingly, we continue to see increasing levels of both trial and adoption of the brands with repeat purchases up more than 30% year-over-year despite the substantial increase in retail price. We remain excited about on! PLUS and its potential in the U.S. market. We believe it's long lasting flavor system and proprietary soft material are differentiators in the category. We continue to see encouraging results from the on! PLUS test launch in Sweden.

Consumer research from the fourth quarter indicates that on! PLUS is competitive with the market leading oral nicotine pouch products in Sweden and is seen as a unique offering with a strong repeat purchase rate of over 30% in the e-commerce channel. Given the success of on! PLUS net and smooth net in December, we introduced on! PLUS Berry and Citrus in 3 and 9 milligram variants in the e-commerce channel. We also plan to expand on! PLUS to additional retail accounts in Sweden. Our teams are on track to submit the PMTA for on! PLUS in the first half of this year and upon planned FDA authorization, we expect that will contribute meaningfully to Helix's growth.

In heated tobacco, we believe our compelling portfolio of products will appeal to the millions of adult smokers seeking innovative and favorable alternatives to e-vapor products. We are continuing regulatory preparations to bring heated tobacco stick products to the U.S. market through Horizon, our joint venture with JT. We remain on track to file a PMTA for Ploom in the first half of 2025 and we are making continued progress on our heated tobacco capsule product SWIC. While we believe heated tobacco products can play an important role in achieving harm reduction, the category remains non-existent in the United States.

We are encouraged by the progress we made in 2023 and we are committed to achieving long-term leadership in each of the smoke-free categories while delivering strong shareholder returns. Last March, we introduced our 2028 enterprise goals. We provided updates on our progress in this morning's press release and we expect to provide progress updates annually moving forward. We look forward to discussing our exploration of non nicotine and international nicotine markets at CAGNY later this month.

Turning to our 2024 financial outlook. Our plans include a continuation of our strategy to balance earnings growth and shareholder returns with strategic investments toward our vision. For 2024, our planned investment areas include marketplace activities in support of our smoke-free products and continued smoke-free product research, development and regulatory preparations. We believe the external environment will remain dynamic in 2024 and we will continue to monitor the economy, including the cumulative impact of inflation, tobacco consumer dynamics including purchasing patterns and adoption of smoke-free products, illicit e-vapor enforcement and regulatory litigation and legislative developments.

Considering these factors, we expect to deliver 2024 full year adjusted diluted EPS in the range of $5 to $5.15. This range represents an adjusted diluted EPS growth rate of 1% to 4% from a $4.95 base in 2023. We expect 2024 adjusted diluted EPS growth to be weighted to the second half of the year. Our guidance includes the impact of two additional shipping days in 2024 and assumes limited impact from illicit e-vapor enforcement on combustible and e-vapor volumes.

Before I turn it over to Sal, I'd like to take a moment to recognize Murray Garnick, who recently announced his decision to retire from Altria. During this remarkable career, Murray represented Altria and its subsidiaries for nearly 40 years, both as outside and in-house counsel, including his last seven as General Counsel leading the law and regulatory affairs departments. Under his guidance, we have successfully managed significant litigation challenges and established Altria as a leading advocate for tobacco harm reduction policies in the U.S.

We will continue to benefit from Murray's guidance through the first quarter. At which time, Bob McCarter will assume the role of General Counsel. Bob currently leads the management of tobacco health and other litigation. Bob has been with Altria since 2015 and spent 18 years before that representing the company as outside counsel. Please join me in thanking and congratulating Murray on an incredible career and we look forward to introducing Bob to many of you at CAGNY and in the years to come.

I'll now turn it over to Sal to provide more detail on the business environment and our results.

Sal Mancuso
Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer at Altria Group

Thanks, Billy. Let's begin with a review of the macroeconomic backdrop and its impact on U.S. tobacco consumers. We believe that discretionary income levels remained under pressure through the fourth quarter. While slightly lower gas prices in the fourth quarter were a modest tailwind, we believe the cumulative effects of inflation and higher consumer debt levels led to lower discretionary income for tobacco consumers. Late last year, we conducted research to understand how tobacco consumers were adjusting their purchasing behaviors to the current macroeconomic environment. Our research indicates smokers continued to feel economic pressure throughout 2023 and were more likely to search for deals from purchasing tobacco products in the fourth quarter. We will continue to monitor tobacco consumer behaviors and changes in marketplace conditions in 2024.

Moving to our results. Our tobacco businesses generated solid financial performance again this year in a challenging external environment. In the smokeable products segment, adjusted operating companies income declined by 1.3% in the fourth quarter and was essentially flat for the full year. Adjusted OCI results in the fourth quarter and full year were primarily driven by elevated industry volume declines and higher promotional investments. Adjusted OCI margins expanded by 0.6 and 0.9 in the fourth quarter and full year, respectively. Net pricing remained robust and net price realization for this segment was 5.5% for the fourth quarter and 8.8% for the full year.

Marlboro displayed resiliency during a period of continued uncertainty for consumers. In the fourth quarter, Marlboro's retail share was 42.2%, unchanged versus the year ago period and down just 0.1 sequentially. Marlboro also grew its share within the highly profitable premium segment to 59.2%, an increase of 0.8 versus a year ago and 0.3 sequentially. In 2023 PM USA used its sophisticated suite of RGM tools to make investments in Marlboro Black to support its share performance. The investments in Marlboro Black gave consumers under economic strain a place to stay within the Marlboro portfolio, while positioning PM USA to maximize profitability over the long-term.

Historically, we have seen similar investments improve brand loyalty during times of economic uncertainty, which has contributed to Marlboro's longstanding leadership in the category. We continue to believe that Marlboro remains the aspirational brand in the cigarette category and we are encouraged by its performance in 2023. Total discount segment share was 28.6% in the fourth quarter, up 0.4 sequentially and 0.9 versus a year ago. We believe that results were driven in part by seasonal trends in the discount segment and the macroeconomic factors that I just discussed.

Turning to volumes. Smokeable products segment reported domestic cigarette volumes decline by 7.6% in the fourth quarter and 9.9% for the full year. When adjusted for trade inventory movements, domestic cigarette volumes for the fourth quarter and full year declined by an estimated 9% and 10%, respectively. At the industry level, when adjusted for trade inventory movements and other factors, we estimate that domestic cigarette volumes declined by 8% in the fourth quarter and for the full year. In cigars, reported shipment volume decreased 1.4% for the fourth quarter and increased 2.8% for the full year, while Black and Mild continued to maintain its leadership in the profitable machine made tip cigar segment.

The oral tobacco product segment reported strong fourth quarter results. Adjusted OCI and OCI margins increased and on! continued to grow with retail share of the oral tobacco category year-over-year. For the fourth quarter, adjusted OCI was 10.3% and the segment expanded adjusted OCI margins to 63.1%, an increase of nearly 2 percentage points versus the prior year. This performance was supported by robust net price realization due in part to lower promotional investments behind on! For the full year, the segment grew adjusted OCI by 5.5% with adjusted OCI margins of 67.4%, up more than 1 percentage point.

Total segment reported shipment volume decreased by 2% and 2.2% for the fourth quarter and full year, respectively. The segment's volume decline was primarily driven by declines in MST volume, partially offset by the growth of on! When adjusted for trade inventory movements and calendar differences, segment volumes declined by an estimated 2.5% for the fourth quarter and full year. Oral tobacco products segment retail share declined by 5.8 percentage points in the fourth quarter as declines in our MST brands were partially offset by the year-over-year growth of on!

Turning to our investment in ABI. We recorded $628 million of adjusted equity earnings for the full year, up 10% versus 2022. We continue to view our stake in ABI as a financial investment and our goal remains to maximize the long-term value of the investment for our shareholders. In our all other operating category, we recorded $74 million in adjusted losses for the year and we continued to return significant cash to shareholders while maintaining a strong balance sheet. Last year, we paid approximately $6.8 billion in dividends and raised our dividend by 4.3% in August in line with our new progressive dividend growth goal. This marked our 50th increase in the last 54 years and repurchased 22.7 million shares, which completed our previously authorized $1 billion program.

Our balance sheet remains strong. As of the end of the fourth quarter our debt-to-EBITDA ratio was 2.2 times in line with our new capital structure goal of approximately 2 times. In the fourth quarter, we issued $1 billion in debt that we plan to use to retire approximately $1.1 billion in maturing debt in the first quarter. Earlier this week, our Board authorized a new $1 billion share repurchase program, which we expect to complete by the end of 2024.

With that, we'll wrap up and Billy and I will be happy to take your questions. While the calls are being compiled, I'll remind you that today's earnings release and our non-GAAP reconciliations are available on altria.com. We've also posted our usual quarterly metrics, which include pricing, inventory and other items.

Let's open the question-and-answer period. Operator, do we have any questions?


Questions and Answers

Operator

[Operator Instructions] Our first question will come from Matt Smith with Stifel.

Matthew Smith
Analyst at Stifel Nicolaus

Hi. Good Morning, Billy and Sal.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Good morning, Matt.

Matthew Smith
Analyst at Stifel Nicolaus

Wanted to ask a question if we could start with the EPS guidance for the year. When we consider the 1% to 4% growth you note that it will be weighted towards the second half. Can you talk about the factors supporting that higher growth in the second half? How much of that is the difference between incrementally higher investment in the first half before you anniversary some higher investment levels in 2023 versus your outlook for the cigarette volumes including the additional shipping days in the second half?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. Thanks, Matt, for the question. I think when you think about it being weighted to the second half of the year, I think there's two major components you should think of, the biggest being NJOY. Remember we closed that on June 1. So we had amortization of that acquisition and so you'll have the investments that we highlighted in our remarks, of course, in the first half of the year where you didn't have that in the first half of last year. I think the other thing to note as you remember the two extra shipping days, one of those will occur in the third quarter and one in the fourth quarter. So they're both back half of the year weighted. I think those are the two major things. Of course, there are always puts and takes, but those are the two major things I would highlight.

Matthew Smith
Analyst at Stifel Nicolaus

Thanks, Billy. And if I can ask a second question here, when we look at the price realization on a per pack basis in the smokeable business, the year-over-year contribution decelerated through 2023, especially in the second half with realized pricing well below the rate of list price increases? Can you talk about the offsets to the price announcements that you have made? How much of that difference is between list and realized prices due to trade down mix within Marlboro, with Marlboro Black, Gold and other extensions versus increased promotional spending?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. It's a little bit of both. I think when you think about it, Matt, we tried to highlight that our consumer is under pressure and we felt like we could use the Marlboro Black franchise as well as rounding up that portfolio with the Marlboro Gold pack. I think if you look back in history, you see we use these tools that it allows us to take a small segment of Marlboro and provide a place for consumers under pressure because Marlboro is still the aspirational brand in the marketplace. Those that are facing economic pressures have a place to continue to interact with Marlboro and purchase Marlboro.

You'll see historically when economic pressures ease a bit for our consumers, we're able to lessen those promotional. But in essence, we kept them in the Marlboro franchise the brand itself and it's much more effective and efficient to do it that way than trying to win them back if they trade down. I would encourage you to think about price realization over the long-term. When you look at it on a quarter basis, you have timing of pricing, things of that nature. But even if I can encourage you to look at it over the long-term, at least look at it and look at cost year-over-year and I think if you look last year, you'll see the fourth quarter was a high mark compared to the other quarters from a price realization. So comps will affect to a certain degree as well.

Matthew Smith
Analyst at Stifel Nicolaus

Thank for that, Billy. I'll pass it on.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Thanks.

Operator

We'll turn now to Pamela Kaufman with Morgan Stanley.

Pamela Kaufman
Analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC

Good morning. Congrats to Murray and thanks to him for all of the help over the years.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. Thanks for that Pamela.

Pamela Kaufman
Analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC

So a question on the guidance for low single digit earnings growth in 2024. This follows a year of low single digit growth in '23, but your growth algorithm calls for mid single-digit earnings growth. So do you think that your longer-term targets are still achievable and what do you anticipate changing over the next few years that can put you on that path?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. Thanks for your question. Pamela. I think there are a number of factors you should think about. When we put that enterprise goal out there, we've talked about it on a compounded annual basis and we've highlighted for you that there would be variability throughout that process because they're going to be years where you have investment and you heard the answer to the previous question. We closed NJOY in the second half of the year and so now you have a full year of investment. On the other hand, you have puts and takes across it because you saw the increase in profitability with on! So as you're investing, the various is going to be at different levels of investment and as we're able to ease those investments, that's what we anticipate through time. The aspiration is to be the leader in each of the categories and you know that we are pretty successful in increasing margins through time.

Pamela Kaufman
Analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC

Thank you. And then in the smokeable segment, this was the second consecutive quarter of negative sales and OCI growth. Given several years of elevated cigarette volume declines and heightened competitive backdrop, how do come further -- your financial model is sustainable and more near-term. Do you anticipate that smokeable segment operating profit can grow in 2024?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I would point you back to the decomposition of overall industry volume and the factors affecting it. The ones I would highlight is really the macroeconomic and other and there -- remember there are two components there. One, we've been highlighting for you that the consumer is under economic pressure and when they are under economic pressure, they make different decisions in the moment.

The other is the explosion of illicit vape. It's having an impact both in the combustible segment as well as the e-vapor segment, the legitimate e-vapor segment, if you will. And so it's having an impact on both. So I think as you think about the economy through time as well as what is necessary, which is significant more enforcement of illegitimate and illegal product in the marketplace, those consumers will be at play. We want to keep them in the e-vapor market and that's why you see the distribution and the movements we make with NJOY, but keep them in the e-vapor market responsibly. And so that's the way we think about it through time.

Pamela Kaufman
Analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC

Okay. And just one last one, can you talk about the current competitive backdrop and what you're observing from the premium and deep discount cigarettes segment as well as from e-vapor and your strategy to compete against each of these segments?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I think when you think about the combustible segment, it has always been a competitive marketplace, but I think we're seeing these other bigger challenges with the consumer being under pressure and thus illicit vape. From an illicit vape standpoint, the consumers are moving -- what's encouraging is it's a proof of harm reduction. If we had harm reduce products in the marketplace, consumers will move, but they have to be reviewed and authorized by the FDA for the consumer to be able to count on that. So I think when you think about through time the competitive -- I would point to Marlboro continues to grow its share in the premium segment and its overall share has been really steady if you go pre pandemic to post pandemic.

But it continues to be a competitive marketplace. I think when you think about the e-vapor, we've certainly seen competitors step up their promotional spend as we have expanded distribution of NJOY. We've shared with you, if you will, the consumer research that we did prior to the acquisition. We feel good about the proposition we have with NJOY and the early consumer feedback we have on the product and marketplace. So we look forward to being able to continue to engage with the consumer as we move to 2024.

Pamela Kaufman
Analyst at Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC

Thank you. I'll pass it on.

Operator

We'll hear next from Bonnie Herzog with Goldman Sachs.

Bonnie Herzog
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

All right. Thank you. Good morning, everyone, and Murray, definitely all best in your retirement.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

I'm sure he'll appreciate that, Bonnie. Thanks.

Bonnie Herzog
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Yeah. I had a quick follow-up question on your smokeable segment, on! I guess, Billy and Sal, I mean, could you guys give us a sense of what's factored in your EPS growth guidance this year? I guess, I'm thinking about it on the low end of your guidance range. Does the low end assume essentially no dollar profit growth for smokeable? Just trying to understand maybe how much flexibility you have to kind of hit some of these ranges.

Sal Mancuso
Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I appreciate your question, Bonnie. You'll recall we don't really offer guidance down to the levels, because we're balancing that. That's why we put forward the enterprise goals. Remember, one is the overall margin for the portfolio of products. Because as I mentioned earlier, each of those categories have different points of investments. What we strive for in the combustible segment is to maximize profitability over the long-term and we're going to make appropriate investments in Marlboro and investments in the growth categories. And so we try to lay for you, if you will, the groundwork of how we're going to manage the business through time.

Bonnie Herzog
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Okay. And then I did want to ask about your smoke-free vision. Just hoping for maybe a little more details on the vision and where you expect by the end of the year in terms of progress? You touched on NJOY and JT, a little bit more color and update on your JV with JT, etc. And then I'm also trying to understand how to think about required investments this year versus last year. Can you give us a sense if spending behind your vision will accelerate in '24? And if so, are your core smokeable and I guess all tobacco businesses strong enough to support this jumped up spending and your ability ultimately to generate EPS growth? I think that's one of the key questions here. Thank you.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah, there was a lot in that question, Bonnie. So I'll try to unpack it, but follow-up if I missed a piece. So I'll start in reverse order. Yeah, we feel like our core businesses are very strong. When you look at the strength of Marlboro in the marketplace, you look at the aspirational Copenhagen in MST and you look at the performance of those businesses through time, you see that they are very strong and continue to be strong. As far as investments, I'll speak -- you asked about Ploom. We said in our remarks, we're continuing to work on the application there. We expect to file that in the first half of 2025. It's just the application process and compiling it and the studies that are involved with that. But we feel good about what we've seen with interactions with the consumer to this point.

As far as NJOY, certainly, you can expect more investment in 2024 than we did in 2023. Some of that's just the nature of we didn't close it until June 1. So now we're in 75,000 stores. And so we're really looking forward to having that in the stores where consumers are shopping, having it displayed much more prominently than it ever has been. We secured as I mentioned the great spot-on the fixture. But having that in the consideration set and we feel like once we get that in consumers' hands, consumer research would tell us that they will convert through time for the product because they enjoy it.

Bonnie Herzog
Analyst at The Goldman Sachs Group

Okay. Thank you. I'll pass it on.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We'll go now to Callum Elliott with Bernstein.

Callum Elliott
Analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein

Thanks very much for the question. Another one on price mix, but maybe from a slightly longer-term perspective. We've obviously seen a divergence I think I would describe it this year between your pricing strategy and some of your big peers and it seems like the peers are signaling that they're set to continue on their part. So I guess this is for Billy. My question is do you see a strategic imperative to react to some of that more competitive pricing and maybe is that what we're seeing in the big step down in sequential price mix this quarter or are you contend over the longer-term to continue this divergence?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I appreciate your question. I think if you recall, as we progressed the 2023, we highlighted for you pockets of the U.S. where we felt like we needed to make some investments. Some in the menthol segment, we saw some competitors getting a bit aggressive in the menthol space and we made those investments and some was related directly to the discount category and some of the aggressiveness there. I think overall when you look at Marlboro and its steadiness in share and its growth in the premium segment, you can see with the RGM capabilities and the data analytics that we have, we're able to be very efficient and effective with spending in the marketplace trying to get, if you will, to the individual consumers so that we can deal with the individual consumer that is facing those either competitive decisions with the aggressiveness that they take or with just their economic situation. And I think you'll see that we've actually been able to implement that very well again with the steadiness of Marlboro and the investments that we've made.

Sal Mancuso
Executive Vice President, Chief Financial Officer at Altria Group

Hi, Callum, this is Sal. I touched on this in our opening remarks. The utilization of the breadth of Marlboro's brand family and utilizing SKUs to interact with consumers who are under economic pressure has occurred in the past. It's happened with special blend as an example during difficult economic times. So you called it a divergence, but I would say this is something that we've done in the past and we've been able as the economy improves to margin up those SKUs, but also see consumers return to mainline Marlboro.

Callum Elliott
Analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein

I guess, I'm just slightly surprised because I think your table in the quarterly metrics disclosures suggests that the macroeconomic pressure has actually lessened this quarter whereas obviously the diverse mix suggests that trade down as accelerated in a very meaningful way.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I think you have to think about it as headwinds, tailwinds. Certainly, gas prices have declined. So you can take up gas prices being a bit of a tailwind. You also have to think about the debt load and the cumulative impact of inflation on the total basket that our consumer purchases. It's that cumulative impact that's affected discretionary income. And then I mentioned debt load just because from a debt load standpoint, the increase in interest rate also affects the discretionary income. So I think overall, if you think about the discretionary income, it's down.

Callum Elliott
Analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein

Okay. Thank you. And I have a just sort of very, very different follow-up. The question is, can you talk about some of the recent regulatory changes in Louisiana where I think they've been taking it upon themselves to clamp down on the illegal sales that you spoke about the disposable of vaping products given the enaction that we've seen from the FDA. I think some of those changes took place in November. So you should have a couple of months worth of data now. What impact have you seen in Louisiana? And do you expect that other states might follow that pause that Louisiana have taken?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. That is a lot based on efforts by ourselves and working with the legislatures in the state. And what you're referring to is Louisiana requires manufacturers to certify the individuals within the company to certify that they either have followed FDA guidance and they have a legitimate application on file and it's pending or that they have actually received authorization. It is early right now, Callum, in Louisiana. I would say the early signs are encouraging that we are seeing illicit vape being removed from the marketplace. I hope that, that trend continues and we are -- there have been a number of states that have passed the rule and legislation as well as a number of states that are considering it, but it's a bit early, but yeah, the early signs are encouraging.

Callum Elliott
Analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein

Okay. Thank you. I'll pass it on.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Thank you.

Operator

We'll go next to Pallav Mittal with Barclays.

Pallav Mittal
Analyst at Barclays

Sure. Thank you. Can you please comment on the sell-through trends for NJOY or is the 11 million number the shipment similar to retail trend as well?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. What we tried to share with you is that was the shipment volume. We tried to share with you also the share and if you will that's estimate of consumer taste. So it was 3.7 for the period that we own them and then we try to highlight for you that we had put in place testing some bundle offers where we can test trial promotions so that we're prepared for the full distribution and being able to bring that across the U.S. this year. We did it on a small scale, but just that small scale impacted national share, an additional incremental 0.3 in November and another incremental 0.3 in December. So it's early. We'll be bringing that marketing activation and promotional for the nation this year, but certainly the early results are very encouraging.

Pallav Mittal
Analyst at Barclays

Sure. And one more, so of the minus 8% decline in industry volumes, how much do you think is the cannibalization from e-cigarettes and how much is the impact from the growth in modern oral?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I would say from modern oral, it's minimal impact. You recall that in secular decline, we represent historically about 1% of cross category movement, then we try to call out any additional or special items. Then what we call out and you'll see that in our quarterly metrics that about 1.5% to 2.5% is related to the illicit e-vapor category. And so if you think about historically 1% being up in secular decline, this 1.5% to 2.5% be related to illicit vape. But yeah, we are encouraged that we're seeing some interaction with on! with adult smokers, but at this point from an impact to the overall industry is minimal. It is really a illicit vape that is driving the majority of that.

Pallav Mittal
Analyst at Barclays

Thank you.

Operator

We'll go now to Jennifer Maloney with Wall Street Journal.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

Good morning.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Good morning, Jennifer.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

I have a question about the California market dynamic data that you shared this morning. It looks like overall cigarette industry sales fell in California more steeply than the country overall in 2023 and -- but it also looks like Marlboro and Philip Morris USA retail share increased in California more than elsewhere. So is it fair to say that as a result of the menthol ban, some consumers moved away from cigarettes, either stopped smoking or moved to other products. But also there was a dynamic here where people who might have smoke menthol cigarettes switched to Marlboro cigarettes.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah, it's a complex issue. So let me try to unpack it for you. When you look at that 15%, we would consider that legitimate shipments that went to California. What you're seeing is a lot of black market activity that takes place in California. So you see great market, consumers going across the border and we've seen that whether it be Nevada or bordering states, some consumers go across to get the menthol cigarettes. We're seeing a lot of black market interrupt from Mexico into the State of California that would not be included in the 15%. So that is black market or the illegal product that has made its way into California for the consumer to buy. Again that wouldn't be in the 15%. We do believe some consumers have moved. Certainly, there's lot huge market of illicit vape in California that continues even though the flavor ban is in place.

To answer your question on the adult cigarette consumer, what you see with the benefit Marlboro is I think if you look at various studies when there is a menthol ban, the consumer really doesn't leave the nicotine space and a lot of them don't even leave cigarettes. They look to non-menthol cigarettes as an alternative. And with our over-indexing and non-menthol, it makes sense that they would move from Marlboro. One of the other things I would highlight and moving to non-menthol, we've seen a influx of what we call menthol cards into the State of California. So again, they are illegal, but it allows the consumer to buy a non-menthol pack of cigarettes, insert the card and then if you will self mentholate their cigarettes. So there I think it points again to when you pass a law without a eye towards how are you going to enforce the law, you see a significant amount of illicit activity that takes place related to that.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

What I don't see here is PM USA total shipments in California I think there's a retail share increase. But did your sales in California decrease in 2023 more than the national average?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. They're commensurate with overall industry.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

Okay. So based on your observations of the market dynamics in California, what would you expect to see a national ban menthol cigarette ban were implemented in terms of market dynamics and the impact on your sales?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

It's hard to answer on the hypothetical, Jennifer, and I apologize. Without seeing the actual proposed rule and what it's going to take place, it's tough to say what their enforcement activities will be. I think if you look at our comments related to the menthol ban, you'll see that we felt like the FDA needed to take into consideration all of the unintended consequences and that you're seeing them take place in California. Black market activity, Illicit product getting into the marketplace, mentholated cards, So there are a lot of unintended consequences. So to be tough to tell, if you will, what the overall -- how the consumer will be at play in that depending on what's available to them.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

But in California your sales went down, although you did see some share gain as menthol smokers switched over to Marlboro.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

That is correct.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

And if the draft rule were adopted as a final rule, do you intend to file a legal challenge if that final rule is published?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

I think it's too early to tell. We would certainly anticipate that there will be legal challenges, but it's too early to tell whether we would be involved. We would like to be able to understand the rule as it's published finally and then make that decision and we'll share it with you when we have anything to share.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

One last question on modern oral nicotine products. Are they a risk to young people? And do you -- and what flavors and marketing approaches do you think are appropriate for that category?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I think they could be a risk for under age if not marketed and sold responsibly. So we actually sent a letter to the FDA many months ago that they should encourage them to issue marketing guidelines for the category so that regardless of authorizations are not be able to have marketing guidelines for that category so that all industry members could follow so that we can protect our harm reduction for adults without exposing under age users to the category. We haven't seen any action by the FDA. But certainly, we as -- our purchase to the marketplace have very minimal under age interaction with our client.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

What would those marketing guidelines look like ideally in your view? Would it entail labor restrictions? Would it entail restrictions on social media, marketing and influencers?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Well, I won't get into the details because we shared that with the FDA and we haven't seen any action at this point, but certainly what would be considered a responsible approach to the marketplace.

Jennifer Maloney
Analyst at Wall Street Journal

Okay. Thanks very much.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Thank you.

Operator

[Operator Instructions] We'll go next to [Indecipherable] with Thomson Reuters.

Unidentified Participant
at Altria Group

Hi guys. Thanks a lot for taking my question. My first one is around the successful challenges to the FDA's marketing denial orders for some dates, which started to put some pressure on the agency and also increased the likelihood of a case going to the Supreme Court. I wondered whether Altria would want to participate in any Supreme Court case? And if so, how it's preparing for that possibility?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah. I think you certainly highlight that the circuit courts have taken different positions on the approach by the FDA in the e-vapor market. We certainly are closely monitoring these cases, but I think when you step back from it, we're in a unique position. We're the only pod based product that has received authorization from the FDA. So if you think about other major competitors in the pod segment, they have not received authorization. Our authorization was in the tobacco flavored pods and our application for the menthol version of the same product is pending with the FDA and we really feel like looking at those court cases since both -- in both instances where the circuit courts have taken different positions, we believe that we should get a marketing order for this menthol product, whether you look at the holdings on either of those incidences of the second quarter. So we'll monitor those, but we're in a unique position.

Unidentified Participant
at Altria Group

Okay. Thank you. And just a follow-up to an earlier question around the sustainability of the financial model for the smokeable segment in particular. Obviously, the industry has some time now effectively used pricing increases to offset volume declines, but the last couple of quarters, it seems that that's been a bit more difficult given the down trading and the promotional environment you flagged. So I'm wondering whether the ability to offset declines with pricing in the smokeable segment is kind of disappearing or you feel that, that will return when the economic environment improves and promotions sort of ease a little bit?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Yeah, I'll be careful not to talk about future pricing, but I'll describe how we think about pricing. So it's certainly an important part of the algorithm. I think you've seen us take pricing. I know people are focused on fourth quarter price realization. I tried to expressed that if you're going to look at it on a short-term basis at least look at comps versus prior year. We look at price realization over the long-term. And when we think about the strategy in combustibles, it really is to maximize profitability over the long-term while balancing appropriate investments to model with the areas that are growing. And when you look at that and look through history and see the price realization, you see the data analytics and the revenue growth management capabilities ticking in. Marlboro has been steady. It's grown its share premium and we continue to compete what we feel like very effectively and efficiently fulfilling what our strategy is for the category through time.

Unidentified Participant
at Altria Group

Okay. So you're kind of confident that the smokeable segment can return to revenue growth in the future?

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

I think when you look at it, we'll continue to execute against our strategy, which is to maximize profitability over the long-term.

Unidentified Participant
at Altria Group

All right. Thanks very much.

Billy Gifford
Chief Executive Officer at Altria Group

Thank you.

Operator

And there appears to be no further questions at this time. I'd like to turn the call back over to Mac Livingston for any closing remarks.

Mac Livingston
Vice President, Investor Relations at Altria Group

Thanks everyone for joining us today. Please feel free to contact the Investor Relations team if you have any further questions. Have a great day. Thanks.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

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